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About black and white

The value of “snitching” is getting batted around lately as though it was a black and white issue.If you cruise downtown Broadway in Denver, you can’t miss the Trinity United Methodist Church, which, if memory serves correctly, sits at a perverted bifurcation of the street. Just across from the church, diagonally to the south, used to be a nondescript building that housed the Clef Club. Oh, sure, you might have heard of Europe’s club of the same name, or the one in New York, but trust that Denver had its very own, and it was, just like the others, a jazz joint.It was almost impossible to find if you weren’t in the know, being located on the second floor, at the top of steep, narrow stairs concealed behind a drab wooden door. It opened around midnight and closed when the feeling was right. If you wanted to drink booze, you had to bring your own, but they ran a bar of sorts that sold “set-ups,” glasses full of ice and/or whatever kind of mix you wanted. My college roommate and I would show up there about once a month with either (depending on our budget) a bottle of Highland Mist or Glenfiddich and listen to some of the best damned music in Colorado.On most occasions, there was a dichotomy of race, meaning my friend and I were usually the only white faces in a sea of smiling and swaying black people. Denver was beginning to tremble with the growing passion of the civil rights movement, but music aficionados and musicians alike had a respect for each other that seemed to transcend such matters, and we all conducted ourselves with dignity.Of course, as with the goose that laid the golden egg, the inevitable had to stick its ugly head up the Clef stairs and create havoc. It came in the form of an angry, rotund, middle-aged white guy, apparently by himself, who was rattling off the word “nigger” faster than an auctioneer’s mention of “what’ll ya give me now” at a cheap antique sale. One of Sonny Liston’s bodyguards (no, Liston wasn’t there) came to our table wondering if we knew who the guy was so that maybe we could tell him to watch his mouth before he got into serious trouble. They’d already tried to politely deal with him, but found him somewhat obtuse. The troublemaker was definitely uncomprehending, and although we tried to deliver the message in a way he could understand, he didn’t get it.But it was a good night – the musicians were hot, the crowd rambunctious and the energy flowed through the room. The man with the death wish disappeared into the gathering, and we stayed far longer than usual, eventually figuring we’d better leave before the city woke up and ticketed our car. As we proceeded down the narrow stairway to the street, the insistent wail of police sirens filled the air, obviously coming our way, but there was no need to be alarmed, we didn’t think. Not until we hit the sidewalk, that is. Just to the right of the door, in the faint light of early dawn and lying face down in a pool of blood, was the unmistakable and lifeless body of the man who had been obstreperously disparaging every black person in the place. Without the need to think about it, we crossed over toward the church and continued on our way just as the cop cars squealed around the corner. It seemed then, as it does now, that we were guests in a world that belonged to others, and as such, it was better to leave justice, without interference, to those who lived in that world. I don’t know if we did the right thing, but I know we weren’t wrong. Tony Vagneur writes here every Saturday and welcomes your comments at ajv@sopris.net.


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